Powerful Support from Loved Ones Helps You Cope with a Diagnosis
- A California family impacted by thyroid and brain cancer just months apart finds strength and resilience within each other.
- Coping with a diagnosis is not easy and usually brings a string of emotions. People can feel angry, sad, or determined after being diagnosed with cancer or a disease and it's completely normal.
- A grade 4 glioblastoma brain tumor "grows and spreads very quickly," according to the National Cancer Institute. The average survival rate is 15 months with treatment and less than six if left untreated.
- Thyroid cancer is a growth of cells that starts in the thyroid, which is located at the base of the neck and produces hormones that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and weight.
- Oftentimes, cancer patients embrace gratitude amid their cancer journeys. Gratitude means being thankful for what you have and showing appreciation for it. One way to exercise gratitude is to take time to think about things you appreciate every day. One way to exercise gratitude in your life includes writing down those things in a journal.
- Cancer patients with children can have increased motivation to endure difficult treatment, but experts suggest having an effective communication plan about the situation will help ease the emotional impact of the illness on them.
A California family upended by unexpected cancer diagnoses finds strength and resilience within each other they didn't know they had. Zak Salazar, 38, and his wife Cori, 38, are raising three young daughters Juniper, 4, Delaney, 3, and Luna 18 months. The couple's lives took a turn this past Spring when Cori was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Zak also found himself on the receiving end of a brain cancer diagnosis just a couple of months later after learning his frequent headaches were caused by a brain tumor.
"It's not until real life and hardship happen that you learn about yourself, and about life, and people around you, and about God," Zak Salazar told People Magazine.Read More
This past June, Zak went to see an eye doctor to update his glasses prescription when an eye exam noticed something unusual. His optic nerves were swollen in both eyes.
His ophthalmologist asked, "Do you experience headaches?"
Zak replied, "Yeah. I do actually. They're horrible."
Zak's ophthalmologist requested he see a retina specialist who came to the same conclusion.
"I didn't really know what that meant, but he assured me that it wasn't good news," Zak recalled.
An MRI discovered the father of three had a large mass on the right frontal lobe of his brain. Zak had to prepare for brain surgery soon afterward to remove the tumor. It turns out, the tumor was a grade 4 astrocytoma or glioblastoma multiforme.
Glioblastoma is considered a central nervous system (CNS) tumor. Grade 4 means the brain tumor "grows and spreads very quickly" according to the National Cancer Institute.
The average survival rate is 15 months with treatment and less than six if left untreated. While there is a five-year survival rate of approximately 6%, those individuals will never be cancer-free and must continue receiving radiation and chemotherapy for the rest of their lives.
What makes glioblastomas so difficult to treat and manage is their cells are heterogeneous, meaning that each one must be individually targeted to slow tumor growth. Surgery also cannot remove all of the cancer because of the way the tumor burrows into the brain. This means the tumor starts to grow again immediately after surgery.
Despite Zak's glioblastoma diagnosis, he's committed to "beating and surviving" brain cancer. He begins a six-week regiment of chemotherapy in August to continue his treatment.
While we don't know the full extent of Zak's glioblastoma treatment, some drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration exist to help patients living with this aggressive form of brain cancer.
The drug temozolomide (brand name Temodar) was a huge breakthrough in helping patients with this aggressive disease.
Temozolomide is a chemotherapy drug patients can take after surgery and radiation. During radiation treatment, doctors use high-energy beams such as X-rays to target and kill cancer cells.
Dr. Daniel Wahl, professor of radiation and oncology at the University of Michigan, explains Temozolomide is an oral drug that works by "slowing down tumor growth."
"Patients with GBM (glioblastoma) have effective treatment options, there are four of them: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and tumor targeting fields. These are electric fields that we can use to treat these cancers," Dr. Wahl said.
Other FDA-approved drugs created to treat glioblastoma include lomustine (brand name Gleostine), intravenous carmustine (brand name Bicnu), carmustine wafer implants, and Avastin (brand name bevacizumab).
Avastin is a targeted drug therapy that blocks glioblastoma cells from sending requests for new blood vessels that feed and allow the tumor to grow.
"Outcomes for these patients are still suboptimal. What I tell my patients is that we have these effective treatments but what they do is they delay the time to when this tumor comes back. Only in absolutely exceptional circumstances would we ever talk about getting rid of one of these cancers a few," Dr. Wahl said.
WATCH: Using electric sources to improve glioblastoma treatment.
Fortunately, research is ongoing to improve the prognosis for people battling glioblastoma. One area of promise is tumor-treating fields which can help extend the lives of patients by two years on average, giving them hope.
Optune, the brand name for the tumor-treating fields delivery device, was launched in 2011 and approved by the FDA in 2015. It is a wearable and portable device for glioblastoma treatment for adult patients aged 22 years or older.
"There's been a very exciting development of tumor treating fields, which are electrical fields that have been applied to the brain," Dr. Suriya Jeyapalan, a neurologist at Tufts Medical Center, previously told Survivor Net.
Meanwhile, Cori undergoes blood tests every three to six weeks to ensure her thyroid cancer has not returned. If it does, she says she'll have to undergo radiative iodine therapy. This treatment method destroys the thyroid gland and any other thyroid cells with little effect on the rest of the body, according to the American Cancer Society.
She said if she does undergo radiative iodine therapy, she'll have to be away from the couple's daughters for three days for the procedure.
"There's no way that I can be away from the girls," Cori said.
Despite the emotional and heartbreaking health challenges facing the young family, they are determined to keep fighting. Fortunately, they have an army of supporters behind them to help make life a little bit easier.
"It was just so beautiful to see our friends and community come together that quickly," Zak said after leaving the hospital to his newly decorated home thanks to supportive family members.
How Parents Find Strength in Children During Cancer Battle
For Zak and Cori, they often referenced their three young children amid their cancer journeys. Sometimes parents battling cancer find strength and motivation through their children to endure the rigors of cancer treatment.
Facing cancer as a parent can be incredibly daunting. Fearful thoughts about leaving your children may creep into your mind creating more stress in an already stressful situation.
"Cancer patients with children can have increased motivation to endure difficult treatment but may also be concerned about the emotional impact of the illness on their offspring," Dr. Cindy Moore of Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center explained to The ASCO Post, an oncology newspaper.
Dr. Moore said cancer warriors with children should discuss their biggest concerns with their healthcare teams so an effective communication plan can be created to explain their diagnosis to their kids.
Coping With a Diagnosis
The Salazars found an increasing amount of resiliency within themselves as they were dealt multiple blows amid their cancer journeys. With each new obstacle placed before them, it brought on a string of emotions and feelings.
People can feel angry, sad, or determined following a cancer diagnosis and it's completely normal. Sarah Stapleton, a licensed clinical social worker, encourages cancer warriors and their families to be "patient with your emotions."
"We can't always assume that people know what we need at a given time, and there are going to be times when you don't want to speak about your diagnosis and you don't want to speak about cancer," Stapleton said.
Psychiatrist Dr. Lori Plutchik explained to SurvivorNet some tips for cancer warriors and their caregivers for managing emotions after a diagnosis. She emphasized getting extra support from loved ones.
"Some people don't need to go outside of their family and friend circle. They feel like they have enough support there," Dr. Plutchik said.
"But for people who feel like they need a little bit more, it is important to reach out to a mental health professional," Dr. Plutchik added.
More on Coping with a Diagnosis
- 7 Common Signs of Thyroid Cancer & How to Spot Them
- John McCain & Joe Biden’s Son, Beau, Both Died From Glioblastoma; Progress in Treating the Disease Is Slow, but Now There’s a Glimmer of Hope
- ‘How Much Will It Cost?’: A Guide to Coping With the Cost of Cancer Treatment
- Cancer Support Groups Aren’t for Everyone — We All Have Our Own Way of Coping
- Living With Cancer: Coping With Hair Loss & the Anxiety it Brings
- Mental Health: Coping With Feelings of Anger
- SN & You Presents Mental Health: Coping With Emotions
Finding Gratitude Amid Cancer
After coping with their new reality, Zak and Cori have developed a new outlook on life. They are choosing to keep a positive attitude and be grateful in the face of their cancer diagnoses.
"Honestly, I have an entirely new outlook on life," Zak said.
"It's a blessing, in a way. I feel like my eyes are open for the very first time, and I'm fully awake and aware of what life is all about," he continued.
It's quite common for cancer patients to embrace gratitude amid their cancer journeys. Gratitude means being thankful for what you have and showing appreciation for it. It's a mindset that helps people going through tough times and our SurvivorNet experts encourage cancer warriors and their loved ones to practice gratitude.
Dr. Zuri Murrell, a colorectal cancer surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told SurvivorNet that his patients who live with gratitude tend to handle treatment better because this attitude is one way to stay mentally healthy.
We all know battling cancer or disease can be extremely stressful. If you're able to find things that you are grateful for can help manage the stress. Stress and anxiety can lead to physical issues, and practicing gratitude can help get both under control.
"The patients who do well with cancer, they live life with that kind of gratitude, but in terms of everything," he explained. "They're grateful, not for cancer, but they're grateful for an opportunity to know that life is finite."
WATCH: Finding gratitude and its impact on your well-being.
The couple says they are not going to focus on how long Zak will be able to keep fighting his brain cancer and instead focus on taking things one day at a time.
"From here on out, every additional second that I get to spend with my family with my wife, my girls, and the people I love is a total and absolute gift. I don't intend on wasting a single second," Zak said.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, multiple studies have indicated that learning to live with gratitude can lead to more happiness and less stress. One way to exercise gratitude is to take time to think about things you appreciate every day. One way to exercise gratitude in your life includes writing down those things in a journal.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
If you are in the middle of a cancer journey and are looking to improve your emotional health, consider what you're grateful for. To begin, ask yourself the following questions to kickstart your journey to achieve gratitude.
- What can I do if I'm struggling to be thankful for what I have in my life?
- Are there local resources for people wishing to improve their mental health?
- What else can I do to help reduce my stress level during my cancer journey?